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Silver Beet is Not Spinach

The last thing I want to be accused of is being a garden snob but (and I'm afraid there is no easy way to say this) when it comes to things culinary, silver beet is not spinach. Of course, this fact in no way diminishes silver beet (which I am always the first to defend). Its hardiness means it is capable of providing year-round greens for both home and hen house, even in the coldest parts of the country, and its versatility in the kitchen (in a robust, hearty sort of way), is second to none. Silver beet even comes in a dazzling array of rainbow coloured stems, fitting it as well for ornamental as vegetable gardens. However, spinach, it is not.

Although silver beet might happily stand in for its rival in some salads and a wide range of pies and frittatas, it will never deliver up the delicate, buttery flavours of spinach, or offer that same melt-in-the-mouth tenderness when cooked, or crispness when served raw. As with most things of superior quality, however, spinach is a significantly more demanding than silver beet. Its cultivation requires both planning and time if it is to produce lush foliage in the way it needs to for optimal flavour.

spinachNever one to enjoy a lot of heat, or any dryness in the ground, summer spinach (make sure you don't muddle it with winter varieties) is best sown as early in spring as possible and, if you live in colder regions and want to enjoy an early crop, under the protection of plastic. Despite the fact that you will find seedlings available in garden centres, spinach should not be grown in containers. It does not like to be transplanted and, if you do this, the plants will never grow as vigorously as those from seed sown directly into the garden. Instead, sow into beds heavily enriched with animal manure and compost. Sow sparingly as spinach does not like to be crowded, although eating baby spinach just a few centimetres high is one way of dealing with the problem.

For maximum tenderness, rapid growth is essential so, once plants are 3 or 4 cm high, water them once or twice a week with liquid fertilizer (made from manure, seaweed, and comfrey leaves soaked in water) and never allow the soil to dry out. If the weather takes a turn for the worse for more than a couple of days, cover the crop with plastic to avoid a check in growth that might send the plants running to seed.

I find it best to harvest whole spinach plants rather than individual leaves (but then, I grow spinach in bulk). Removing whole plants keeps the vegetable row tidy and provides room for remaining plants to spread out. I use both stems and leaves. Stems are succulent and full of flavour, and break down quickly during cooking. Spinach also freezes very well and, because it is a short(ish) season crop, and a favourite, I blanch it and freeze it in individual muffin tins for free-flowing.

Alas, spinach's summer season is all too short-lived for as soon as there is any strength to the sun, this delicious but delicate crop runs to seed. As with all seasonal treats, however, its brief appearance on the menu makes it even more worth waiting (and working) for.

I do hope I haven't put you off silver beet – there is nothing to equal it, and I am always so grateful for its stoicism in the face of frost, hail, and snow. But spinach, especially when it has been grown with care, is a completely different animal.

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